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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Goan-Style Shrimp Curry & Empress Dal

Okay, another recipe in the Kansas City Scar that looked so good I had to try it.

A pair of recipes, actually, Goan-Style Shrimp Curry and Empress Dal.

The recipe called for fresh curry leaves. I didn't even know curry was a leaf. For all I knew, curry powder was some sort of pulverized seed or root or not even a single spice but a cocktail of several. In fact, that latter notion was probably the closest I came to thinking I knew what curry was, because it seems to come in pastes of varying colors, intensities, and composition.

So I set out to get fresh curry leaves, Sambar (which is a cocktail of spices similar to Garam Masala), and Amchur (powdered dried mango), the main things I was missing in my pantry if I was going to attempt this.

You'd think a joint named India Emporium would have fresh curry leaves if anyone would. But the man explained that you had to get them from Florida, that there was a bunch of strict Department of Agriculture rules about how you keep them and what produce they can be exposed to and I don't know what-all. He didn't say if he meant the USDA or the Kansas state version. The long and short of it was it was theoretically possible but more trouble than it was possibly worth.

He suggested a bit of dried fenugreek in the oil up front as a substitution, and being he's from India, I decided to trust his judgment. 'Maybe a teaspoon, maybe too, but not too much or you'll overpower everything. Indian food is about balance.'

Fair enough. Some of my past attempts at various Asian (and other) cuisines have been marred by injudicious use of Oh-My-Gawd-That's-Hot. So I figured I'd keep it to two teaspoons and follow the recipe faithfully.

I was a bit peeved that the Scar would run a recipe you couldn't actually get the ingredients for locally. The problem is the recipe and article were poached from a San Francisco Chronicle piece that was, in turn, poaching recipes from a book called American Masala.

So I'm thinking in a little mini-tirade on the way home about how they ought to grow their own. A daily metro should have its own food writers and they shouldn't write about shit they haven't cooked.

I get home and decide, out of curiosity, to call the Whole Paycheck Market and see if they ever got fresh curry leaves in. Big corporation, they could do the paperwork, probably, to cover the whole chain and then maybe it wouldn't be un-doable.

No, their produce manager told me, but there's an Indian market across the street from us that gets them.

So I start calling other Indian markets and find that some claim to have fresh curry leaves, another said, 'Not until Tuesday.' One didn't answer the phone, and after I was already cooking, the guy called me back. He doesn't even have a store, it turns out, he sells at farmer's markets and was willing to meet me at a Starbucks near his house if I wanted some curry leaves.

Like I was buying weed or something. So I asked him what the deal was with the Department of Agriculture and the India Emporium, and I admit his accent was strong enough I don't think I got all he was trying to tell me. But I did get 'another stupid idea from the American Government,' and 'It's true if you're importing from Florida but there are local growers, greenhouses and no need for importing out of Texas or Florida.'

I also gather, there have been other seasonings common to certain Indian dishes that the U.S. has banned importation of or even sale as a food product, and this is a sore point among Indian grocers who are just trying to supply other Indians with ingredients to make the food they grew up on. I can dig it, the United States government is often the Olympics of bad ideas, especially bad ideas meant to protect people from themselves.

So anyway, the Scar wasn't guilty of running a recipe I can't get the ingredients for, only for running a recipe with an ingredient harder to obtain than marijuana.

Anyway, without the shuck and jive, the recipes:

Goan-Style Shrimp Curry
for the marinade:
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1 pound peeled & deveined shrimp
Combine the marinade ingredients with shrimp and toss to coat; stick in the fridge while you make the sauce.

for the sauce
1/4 cup canola oil
2 teaspoons dried fenugreek (or 24 fresh curry leaves if your dealer can fix you up)
4 dried red chillies
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon salt
3" piece of fresh ginger, peeled & minced
1 medium onion minced
2 cloves garlic, peeled & chopped
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
2 cups diced tomatoes (canned, partially drained)
1 teaspoon Sambar Masala
1-1/2 cups coconut milk (one can, actually, I think it was a 14 ouncer)
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Heat the oil with the fenugreek (or curry leaves) and peppers 1 to 2 minutes; add the black pepper and cook for 1 minute more. Add the ginger, onion and salt, stirring often as it cooks another 8 minutes (until the onion is translucent and turning brown, adding a quarter cup of water to prevent sticking. Add the coriander, garlic, turmeric and cook another minute before adding the tomatoes. Simmer 5 minutes then stir in the Sambar and coconut milk. When this starts to simmer, add the shrimp with residual marinade and simmer 2 minutes longer. Stir in cilantro and serve over steamed basmati rice.

Empress Dal
3 tablespoons canola oil
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
3 dried red chillies
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 clove minced garlic (or 1/4 teaspoon asafetida, though I didn't have any of that on hand)
1 cup washed and drained lentils
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon Amchur (dried mango powder)
1 teaspoon salt
Combine cumin, chillies, turmeric and oil in saucepan and heat one to two minutes, stirring constantly. Add the garlic, lentils, cayenne and amchur and cook a minute longer, stirring constantly. Add 3-1/2 cups water, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes. You can thicken the dal by putting 1/2 cup or more into the blender and returning it to the Dal, though in my case it was plenty thick without this step.

I'm not nuts about Dal, it's good but only in modest quantities. Maybe I need to find another Dal recipe to try.

The curry, on the other hand, I had to make myself stop eating before I'd gorged myself. Not too hot, extremely savory and complex. Like the man said, all about balance. You can taste the cilantro, the coriander, the shrimp, the ginger, etc. The whole thing comes together in a sublime blend.

I can't wait to try this again with the fresh curry leaves. And maybe experiment with tempeh in place of the shrimp.

A note: make sure to either measure your ingredients ahead of time or have the measuring tools and ingredients lined up and organized before you start to cook. My first crack at the Empress Dal, I scorched the first four ingredients while trying to get the Amchur open. And making the curry, I had to pull the skillet off the heat and hunt for my coriander. Pretend you're on a cooking show, just have it all ready to dump in. Dice the veggies and everything before you put heat to the oil.

I did some digging into the whole business about unavailability of curry leaves was. Turns out, and this appears to be pretty recent, there's a citrus pest, the Asian citrus psyllid, that has been found on fresh curry leaf shipments. This pest carries 'citrus greening disease,' which I gather is the mad cow of oranges, a thing so destructive, just it's name will make a citrus farmer's bowels turn to water.

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